Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 22
The 99 percentSanta Barbara County imports nearly all the food it consumes, and some organizations are taking action to change that
BY SHELLY CONE
Santa Barbara County is an abundant agricultural area. Emerald green carpets of vegetables stretch out from the highways, dotted by plump strawberries like clusters of rubies in the sun. To the visitor, it’s a foodie paradise full of farm-fresh, just-picked healthy fare, but the truth is that Santa Barbara County in general eats weeks-old travel-weary produce from crates shipped across the state—and even across the country.
Santa Barbara County ranks among the top 1 percent in the nation for agricultural production, boasting $1.2 billion in annual sales. In theory, if the state’s infrastructure were damaged in a way that isolated our communities, Santa Barbara County could sustain itself in a way a large city like Los Angeles couldn’t. Nearly 50 different varieties of crops are grown here.
Yet this region has become a glaring example of the dysfunctionality of the modern food system. It’s been termed the Santa Barbara Syndrome by food activists and economists around the country. Why? Because of this statistic:
Santa Barbara County exports 99 percent of the produce it grows and imports 95 percent of the produce its residents consume.
The statistic may be shocking in itself, but upon examination it could be considered both dysfunctional and logical: dysfunctional that a system exists to essentially offset what this county grows, but logical when considering that the community’s infrastructure and economy are built to not only support but encourage bulk export.
Why the exports make sense
The county’s food system is set up for bulk export, but also for bulk import. In short, it simply pays for local farmers to export bulk amounts of food, according to UCSB environmental studies professor David Cleveland.
Similarly, the county’s infrastructure makes it easy for bulk import. Cleveland used UCSB as an example. The school has a policy that its food must come from within a 150-mile radius, but getting small food trucks to deliver local goods is difficult.
“You can’t just back a pickup truck at the docks at the dorms,” Cleveland explained. “It’s made for 18-wheelers.”
Compounding that difficulty is the fact that the school requires trucks that drive on campus to have certain permits, so there’s a cost factor involved as well.
Why some people want to increase localization
Supporters of food localization say they believe it will provide the community easier access to nutritional foods, help offset the carbon footprint, and keep money local. They also believe that not only does buying local improve food safety, but that a heavy reliance on imported food puts the community at risk of not being able to feed itself or get access to food in the event of a natural or manmade disaster that disrupts the industrial food system.
Eric Talkin, executive director of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, said food insecurity—not knowing where your next meal is coming from—is also a problem in this area. In fact, he said, we have one of the highest such insecurity levels in California.
Achieving localization isn’t easy. Not only is the physical infrastructure not set up for it, but the idea can also be misleading. Cleveland said because “localization” has become such a buzz word, it’s given large corporations a marketing tool to draw people—and their money—into massive chain stores and away from supporting the local economy.
Cleveland said many such stores may say they offer local produce, but they get their food from a warehouse that may be hundreds of miles away. It’s true that a shop may offer Santa Barbara County produce, but it’s Santa Barbara County produce that was shipped to the warehouse, distributed among all the stores in the chain, and happened to end up back in Santa Barbara County.
The other challenge is reaching consumers in order to get them to eat healthier—which is a second goal of localization advocates. Just because the food is available doesn’t mean people will eat it. Outreach efforts need to be made to focus on educating people that healthy food is here, available, and accessible.
Cleveland said that in order to achieve the goals of localization, outreach needs to target food literacy and efforts need to be put in place to help farmers reduce their carbon footprint.
What local groups are doing
Erik Talkin of the local Foodbank said the Foodbank’s focus is on creating food literacy—learning how to shop, cook, and eat in a healthy, well-informed way.
“Rather than say, ‘Hey, we’re going to give out food,’ we’re trying to get people locally to generate food,” he said.
When it comes to food literacy, the Foodbank is all over it. Once a place that collected and distributed food to the needy, the Foodbank has declared its old distribution model ineffective and has embraced a focus on helping people become food literate.
“It’s very clear to us that we’re not stopping food insecurity issues by having people stand in the hot sun waiting for a hand out,” Talkin said. “It doesn’t change lives.”
About two or three years ago, the Foodbank started its Healthy School Pantry program that focuses on food education at 13 underserved schools. Once a month, volunteers visit the school and invite parents to come try a healthy recipe. Then they’re given a cooking demonstration on how to prepare that recipe. Then they’re given the ingredients to make that recipe at home. The Foodbank also promotes its Grow Your Own Way program during the Healthy School Pantry events, encouraging families to grow their own food.
“We try to start them out with some seeds and a bucket and show them that they can start small and grow something on their patio,” Talkin said.
Because the Grow Your Own Way gardeners see the families at the monthly Healthy School Pantry events, they’re able to support and encourage their efforts to grow their vegetables. Gardeners explain that even with a small space like an apartment or balcony, families can grow food and herbs.
Another way food localization supporters are encouraging people to eat healthy, as well as reduce the effects of the industrial food system on the environment, is through community-supported agriculture.
Since the 1970s, Santa Maria has offered a community gardening program. There are about 80 plots available to residents for a small annual fee. There, they can grow organic produce and flowers. The city supplies the water and maintenance around the plots. The gardeners just need to tend to their gardens, said city Parks and Recreation manager Alex Posada.
The city even holds garden and landscape workshops—a May event was organized with local landscape supply businesses—to help gardeners with techniques and instruction.
“It makes a difference,” Posada said. “It helps them eat better, especially if they grow something that they may have passed up in the supermarket because they are on a moderate income. And they feel good about eating vegetables they’ve grown themselves.”
There’s also a socialization aspect to the garden, Posada said, adding that many of the gardeners, especially seniors, will sit at their plots all day.
Santa Maria residents Eugenio and Clementia Jorge may not spend the entire day at their garden, but they do tend to it most days—just like they have since they first started it sometime around 1975 when the city opened the garden, they recall.
Surrounded by kale and lettuce in perfect rows and taro root with leaves as big as elephant ears, Clementina leans over, produces a small knife out of thin air, and cuts a head of lettuce.
“I come here in the morning, pick it fresh, and take it home,” she said, “and I use it for dinner.”
Then she snapped open a long red and white pea pod, revealing the beans inside. She couldn’t remember the name, but said the seeds came from the Azores islands where she’s from.
“These are my favorite,” she said. “I get the beans, take them out of the shell, and put them in the freezer and when I want, I make a good soup, just like my parents would make in my country.”
Eugenio said they grow so much tomatoes, squash, corn, beans, lettuce, and everything else that they often give away much of the food they produce. He said it’s a lot of work, but worth the effort.
“It can be expensive, you know,” he said. “But it’s the fresh air and fresh food.”
For Mitch Ishimoto, it’s a way to keep occupied—and for a lot less than money other hobbies require.
“It’s something to do,” he said. “It’s cheap; I pay something like $27 for the plot. You couldn’t do it for that much just paying for water.”
Ishimoto is also a little disheartened that the plot he’s tended for the last five or six years may not be the same next year.
The city’s garden may go through a few changes in 2013 as it partners with Allan Hancock College’s new crop science program. A portion of the garden will be used as a classroom, though Posada said there are a couple of possibilities for creating new community gardens in the city.
“I heard they are thinking of something on Betteravia. That’s no good for me,” Ishimoto said. “I live right here, Betteravia is too far.
“Anyway I’m 75 I won’t be here much longer,” he said with a chuckle.
For those who can’t or don’t feel adventurous enough to grow their own food, localization supporters advocate for food hubs, collecting food from various farmers at one main point and then distributing it from there. Talkin said the Foodbank has been trying to connect with farmers to do just that. Similar food hubs have been successful at foodbanks in other areas of the country.
“We have the warehouse and the means of distribution,” he explained. “It makes sense for us to do that, so we’ve been looking to connect with farmers and get the discussion going.”
CSA programs fill the void for now. Places like Growing Grounds, Blosser Urban Garden, and Babe Farms deliver boxes of organic produce to subscribers each week, along with recipes on how to use the fresh veggies. The programs serve as a way to educate members on healthier eating, as well as an introduction to less-familiar crops. It’s also another way to keep money spent on agriculture local, while contributing less to the industrial food system and its impacts on the environment.
Even though the industrial food system is a huge giant to fight, food-localization supporters are taking steps both small and large to reduce its impacts and hope that someday the discrepancy between what the county exports and imports isn’t so shocking.
Contact Arts Editor Shelly Cone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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